Sunday, January 9, 2011

Matters of Art

Salaam and 'sup, citizens.

Sorry for the radio silence. Things have been a little hectic here. Spreading my self too thin across too many projects. Beyond employment and whatever I have that passes as a social life, there are three major things on my plate at the moment. One is an SMPS piece I need to finish by the end of the month (this one's a popular request that's been long overdue). The other two are a bit more ambitious, or at least I'd like to so. One is a new novel -- a story about love, addiction, and self-annihilation that will certainly be a great hit with the half-dozen or so people whose arms I twist into reading it. The other is a new webcomic for which I'm trying to lay the groundwork. It would be a fully-illustrated (by someone other than me, of course) 8EB spin-off focusing primarily on artists and the art world, spoofing both by way of gross exaggeration. It if does end up happening, it's still a long way off. The ball has to be sculpted before it can get rolling.

Sometimes when I'm working on multiple projects, the streams get crossed and ideas from one start bleeding into the others. Some of the considerations for the comic found their way into the novel. There's a conversation in which one character questions the value of art. She anaologizes art as the mucus of society -- a byproduct of civilization. It is necessary (she says) that a certain amount be produced, since it acts as a kind of lubricant. A society in which there is no art whatsoever (does such a thing exist?) is a society whose people are despondent, unmotivated, and uninspired.

An overabundance of mucus signifies a problem within the body. Likewise, a society's producing a great deal of art is suggestive of a social malady.

People generally dedicate themselves to producing art out of narcissism and an inability to content themselves or find meaning in productive, useful occupations or social activities. A society that produces a great many people who feel that the expression of their own thoughts and feelings takes precedence over all other concerns is a society with an underlying problem. The same can be said of a developed society that fails to offer its members intellectual or spiritual satisfaction through participation in commerce, civics, or service. When there is more art being produced than the public has desire or time to consume, or when a society cannot offer its participants anything more than personal comfort and spending money, something is not well within the body politic.

What about the consumers of art? What do we say about a culture whose subjects dedicate the greatest portion of their leisure time to aesthetic hedonism rather than education, exercise, or self-improvement? Does it suggest decadence? Misdirection? Apathy? Does the popular prevalence of escapism through art indicate that members of a culture are hard-pressed to find meaning, pleasure, and interest in their day-to-day activities, occupations, and interactions with families and neighbors? Does it suggest the majority of the populace is unwilling or uninterested in participating in civics, public service, community engagement, or activism?

Thanks to advances in communication and information technology, there is possibly more art, more entertainment, more self-expression for its own sake being created and disseminated than ever before. Is this a good thing? Could it possibly be symptomatic of a problem within society that needs to be addressed?

It's great fun writing stories whose characters espouse viewpoints I don't necessarily share. But this time, I feel myself a little too taken in by my own devil's advocate. (Perhaps this whole thing was inspired by some of the ideas espoused in parts II and III of The Republic, a book which I've finally come around to reading.)

I'd like to know: how would you respond to these suggestions? What is the value/purpose of art in the 21st Century? What should be the role of the 21st Century artist?

(My apologies if this comes off as disjointed or if I'm producing a non-argument or non-sequitur without realizing it. Feeling a bit scatterbrained this evening. Please, rip it to shreds.)

EDIT: You know, I just remembered that Mr. Ambrose Bierce defined art in a Devil's Dictionary entry. Let's see what he has to say!

ART, n. This word has no definition. Its origin is related as follows by the ingenious Father Gassalasca Jape, S.J.

One day a wag — what would the wretch be at? —
Shifted a letter of the cipher RAT,
And said it was a god's name! Straight arose
Fantastic priests and postulants (with shows,
And mysteries, and mummeries, and hymns,
And disputations dire that lamed their limbs)
To serve his temple and maintain the fires,
Expound the law, manipulate the wires.
Amazed, the populace that rites attend,
Believe whate'er they cannot comprehend,
And, inly edified to learn that two
Half-hairs joined so and so (as Art can do)
Have sweeter values and a grace more fit
Than Nature's hairs that never have been split,
Bring cates and wines for sacrificial feasts,
And sell their garments to support the priests.


  1. "People generally dedicate themselves to producing art out of narcissism and an inability to content themselves or find meaning in productive, useful occupations or social activities."


    "ART, n. This word has no definition."

    We need a working definition of both "art" and "dedicate."

  2. It's an interesting question, and to an extent I agree. While creativity is a quality all people should nurture, encouraging it to the express purpose of "art" may indeed miss the point somewhere. While the world would be a much bleaker place without it, in the absolute strictest sense, "art" is not very useful.

    It's not really a secret that much (if not most) people in America today generally don't like their jobs. I think this is inherent of a society progressing to a certain point and afterwords just not quite sure what to do with themselves. But to head straight on into art seems to have produced not much more than some things that I find mildly interesting at best and flat out stupid at worst. But I'm terribly refined so...

    I'm sorry, but I don't really have an answer for you on this one other than my opinion that the newer generations (of which I am part) at some point really need to get over themselves and get back to work.

    P.S. If your SMPS article is what I think it is (hint: FF Tactics) then me = :D

    Although though I sheepishly admit I'd take a piece on FFIV: The After Years as well. I don't know if anyone else found that game as interesting as I did, especially the final dungeon.

  3. Art's definition really could include such a wide spectrum of creative expression, from music, to dance, to painting, to novels, to a re-design of the Coca-Cola label. I'm sure many people consider themselves "artists" of some sort, although many would not. Really, any form of expression, a physical manifestation of an idea created in the mind, might be considered art. It would be interesting to combine art and science to define this. Perhaps, measure brain activity in various parts or hemispheres of the brain as subjects create paintings, write songs, and complete math questions (as a control, of course).

    In terms of its purpose/intention, much of that depends on the intention of the artist itself. Cynically, one might argue that the purpose of art in the 21st century is to make money. Musicians, graphic designers, and even writers all create with at least a slight hope of making money from those that appreciate the creation. That being said, art has always had a rough history with money. Even many artists from the past that are respected and revered in college art history courses did a lot of their work on commission.

    That being said, ideally, true art should try to challenge or explore an idea. This is what separates the "Beatles" from the "Lady Gagas." Not everyone can write "Common Sense," but some can write a song that describes the ideals of a generation to those who may not truly understand it. Or take a striking photograph of a Midwestern family suffering during the Great Depression. All three of these examples tried to make people to consider a new idea, or tried to make society take a different direction.

    Even with the creation of the internet, with a world of information as many people's fingertips, many people still choose (possibly) to ignore it. "Jersey Shore" most likely had more Google searches this week than basically anything important to our species. As such, art in all its forms, that are virtually impossible to define, can be used to supplement this lack of attention to ideas with important societal impact.

    Human beings learn and process information differently. If this is a foundation of educational philosophy, why would this not carry over to larger ideas? Literature, music, visual arts, and others can all strive for the same goal, but in different approaches. A political cartoonist in The New York Times and Bono whining lyrics about a war-torn Ireland are both art. They both challenge and express an idea that may not be considered by their audience. However, the creators simply use their method of synthesizing information to reach those whose brains work in a similar way.

    To summarize this rambling 7 a.m. comment, art in the 21st century is struggling to balance the needs of society (making money and "playing the game," if only to survive) and the need to challenge a societal norm. When these two meet (and they rarely do, in my opinion) you have a once-in-a-generation band, a respected and talented actor, or an author that can truly get his message out to a giant audience.

    Seems I wrote about as much as you did. Also, I love reading your blog.

  4. Edit: Whoops! Second paragraph of my original post. I meant to say "I'm NOT terribly refined". Definietly don't want to give off that impression.

  5. I'm trying to recall Scott McCloud's definition of art. Something along the lines of "Anything that is not related to the direct pursuit of food or sex."

    I kind of agree with that, to the extent that all humans have the innate desire to create and to process how they see the world. Even before the Internet people liked to play music, write, or sketch. It's just that the rise of mass media and the connectedness of the Internet has allowed us to share everything with one another.

    So the amount of art in a society indicates little more than the size of the population, in my opinion.

    Though I do expect that sites like YouTube and deviantART have encouraged many people to pursue their hobbies with greater seriousness, so it is arguable that there has been more art (or attempts at art) produced in the past few decades than the proportional number before mass media came about.

  6. Instead of making our own fun, we consume games and create 'art' instead, especially if we can consume some expensive art supplies and show others we are like important artists. Maybe people will even forgive our craziness if we are crazy artists!

    It is not like you said about writing being something done not because it's rational, but because writers must.

  7. You know, rereading that I was entirely too angsty. I think people have always created a lot. While most people spun transient verbal stories, some few made permanent works. Now that our culture values owning lots of things, having lots of permanent works makes sense.

    We aren't built to make art for more than a close tribe of friends. Everyone sharing it with more makes it seem like more is created.

  8. This reminds me of the most recent Brain Diving article on ANN ( Well it remind me more of the interview with the writer of the book that the article comments on (

    While I think both of you are right about the new generation (mine) not wanting to deal with the real world and becoming too involved with easy entertainment I think your missing something important...

    Recently I watched a National Geographic documentary about Americans stationed in the most dangerous valley in Afghanistan titled "Restrepo" (it's on Netflix and I'd recommend it) and there was a scene where 1 of the soldiers was killed and 1 of his buddies came up and cried, said he wanted to see him, and his buddy said he shouldn't... My response? A mix of "wow, this is a really powerful scene," and "he needs too work on his acting."

    ...SOME OF ME COULDN'T HELP THINKING THAT WAS A MOVIE! You see, everyone seems to think that after playing games long enough people will eventually start to think they are real... But in reality, the exact opposite is true, if you see things fictionalized so very often, when it really happens it becomes harder to recognize that IT'S REALLY HAPPENING!!! That's also why I think Jack Thompson is a sophistic hack.

    Also I'll totally buy your book... or is it going to be free?

    P.S. I recommended you to Game Informer, ( I've actually gotten a response from the editor-in-chief on that forum before, so it may not be just a futile effort either.

  9. Epigramess: In the context I took "dedicate themselves to producing art" to mean conscientiously selecting self-expression as their lives' highest preogrative."


    I kind of agree with that, to the extent that all humans have the innate desire to create and to process how they see the world. Even before the Internet people liked to play music, write, or sketch. It's just that the rise of mass media and the connectedness of the Internet has allowed us to share everything with one another.

    I had barely even considered that. Perhaps it's also worth thinking about how the KINDS of art people are producing has changed as a result of the digital revolution. Nobody whittles anymore, but everyone's got their own YouTube AMV channel.

    Spriteless: Nuts. I was sort of hoping it was written in earnest. More people should introduce themselves and/or preface their arguments by stating how refined they are.

    We aren't built to make art for more than a close tribe of friends. Everyone sharing it with more makes it seem like more is created.

    Again, yeah -- something I didn't give a lot of thought before (though I really should have). Thanks to the information age, art has become exponentially easier to pass around. Maybe it's not a matter or more art being made, but more art being shared.